In his Political Vocabulary, Maunders says that the coroner and sheriff took the place of the older ruling earl of counties, and that the coroner had to be a knight. Green, in his History of the English People, gives Hubert Walter, bishop of Salisbury, the credit of creating the office in the reign of Richard First. The bishop, as premier, took the pleas of the crown from the sheriff, and gave them to the coroner, “a new officer”. The title itself implies attention to the king's interests as chief object, and it was later that duties of inquest came to be considered principal. There was a law, Maunders adds, that the coroner must be possessed of high influence and large lands in the county for which he acted. John de St.Clair fulfilled these conditions, and more; for he is a baron or dominus in the Hundred Rolls. His antecessor, and some successors, may be grouped around him as central figure. He held office under Henry III, who died in 1272, and also under his son, Edward I.
Thomas Sinclair of Aeslingham manor was his antecessor, the Frindsbury of later times. That it was a ruling centre of Kent there can be no better proof than that Pinindene was in it, where the great law-suit de terris was held, Lanfranc, the archbishop of Canterbury, against Odo, William the Conqueror's brother, bishop of Bayeux. Whether as being eldest or younger son, gavelkind not unknown in his time, Thomas got possession of the chief seat of Hugo St.Clare, his ancestor, cannot be decided. In the Textus Roffensis there is a charter of the prior and convent of Rochester, to which Thomas de St.Clair is a witness. Nicolas of Ore, the brother of Sir Robert Sinclair of Estilberry and Merston, the latter estate bordering on Aeslingham, also signed this document; and the facts must have been that they were three brothers, and had received their portions, “fees being all partible”, as they are found locally named. To the chapel for which Hugo got the notification and grants of privilege from the bishop of Rochester, Hugo left a charter, which is confirmed by Thomas in 1289. The church of Frindsbury or Aeslingham must have been this same chapel, and it gave returns to the see of 100 marks yearly, which is considerable evidence of the importance of it and its surroundings. He granted Nelefield, Kent, to it. Hasted says that John, the second bishop of Rochester, dedicated St.Peter's Church, Aeslingham, as part of other favours, to Hugo St.Clare, who paid liberally in return.
Of John, the coroner, his successor at Aeslingham, more is known. Next to putting down nationalities, the greatest of the Plantagenets was remarkable for his desire to put down the lawyers. From the Hundred Roll and Quo Warranto inquisitions, instituted at the beginning of his able reign, to the commission of trail-baton, or “draw the staff on them”, in 1305, cudgelling all those who held legal offices on slight or no occasion, was his favourite relaxation from the bloodier, equally unjust, cudgellings of war of this “hammer of Scots”, and of Cambrians besides. His extreme respect for the purity of law could be interpreted on commercial principles, perhaps; but there always was, and will be, jackal's provision for such lions of scrupulosity as this King Edward.
John Sinclair the coroner's busy public life could not possibly escape the envy of some detractors, and in the Quo Warrardo rolls he is found arraigned on the most trivial injustices, or supposed acceptances of too much for the performance of his duties as coroner.
That he underwent a challenge of Quo Warranto in the young enthusiasm of the new king was a fate common to him with John Warren, earl of Surrey, and many another of the most dignified and historic men in the kingdom; and, for all Edward's energy, they had the impudent radicalism of the thing sent to its own place long before the end of the reign. The criticism to which Edward subjected his best legal officers and in capite holders would have turned any less able and less popular monarch infallibly off the throne, and, as it was, he left a legacy of discontent that took centuries to quiet. It was under number ten of the articles of inquiry put into the hands of his commissioners of the great seal, 11 Oct, 2 Edward I (1273), that the king challenged the coroner of Kent, Dominus Johannes de Sancto Claro, viz.,
‘Exactions and oppressions of sheriffs, escheators, coroners, and other ministerial officers under pretence of law’. Let a commission be armed now, or any time, with such a weapon, and summon popular juries, and what is to be expected ? Sheriff Aristides or Coroner Camillus would be hunted into exile.
The illustration of thirteenth century life given by the coroner's appearance in these Hundred Rolls is sui generis, and does him not a particle of discredit, but, to judicious interpretation, honour as an earnest and exact man, having no love of oppression, but of order, and of the means required to keep it at its due tension. He married the fourth daughter of Baron Camville of Clifton, Nicolaia Camville or Campvill. The Harleian MS. 807 by Robert Glover, Somerset herald, of the sixteenth century, calls her father Dominus William de Campvill, and he had properties in Kent as well as in the west. Gerard de Camville was viscount or sheriff of Lincolnshire in 1194, of which office as well as the castle of Lincoln he was dispossessed that year; and Richard de Camvilla was one of the barons who signed the constitutions of Clarendon, as may be seen readily in Stubbs' Select Charters. William was the last baron, the male issue having failed; and the barony being in abeyance among the co-heiresses, Nicolaia had ultimately heired the title for her husband, if he had not already had baronial rank. Hamon de Crevequer, “lord of Kent”, got the wardship in Henry III of the heir of Thomas de Kanvill of the same family. The Crevequers, by their mother, the sister of Hamo Dapifer, heired their uncle, so that this was connection by John on some of the old lines of relationship. Dominus Johannes de Sancto Claro is one of the signatures to the returns from the bishop of Rochester's feu at Dartford.
His nearest successor is difficult to discover, but the next to that was Thomas Sinclair, who is noticed as holding the Essex properties in 1384. But there is earlier account of him. Chiche and other manors about twelve miles from Colchester, which had been in possession of the name and had fallen into other hands, again returned to it in the person of Thomas. Among the Harleian Charters there is one bearing description,
‘Charter of John Cavendish and Leo de Bradham to Thomas Sinclair of the manor of Frothewick with pertinents in Chicheridel, St.Osyth, Crustwich, Chiche, Comitis, and Chichesrethwick: with two seals: 37 Edward III (1363)’. This is 1364, and for a time these eastern properties had been out of the lineage, and not improbably so going by William's arrangements, the sheriff of Hereford and Essex, if not earlier.
How this Cavendish held it may be illustrated by the fact that the Cavendishes were a Suffolk family near Bradfield St.Clare, and heired it by marriage. They became afterwards the brilliant duke of Devonshire Cavendishes of naval and other state fame. This is not their only connection, that has survived, with the lineage. In Henry VIII's reign one of the successors of this Thomas of Frothewick, Tilbury and Aeslingham, married Margaret Cavendish, and affinities were the explanation of property thus changing. In the full history of the Cavendishes, if such at all exist, this ought to be found.
About 1384 the Kent properties must have finally parted from the Essex Sinclairs in favour of a younger branch of the family. Of the latter only glimpses at intervals appear, but the Tilbury and Danbury men long increased in position and distinction. Some account of the younger descendants of Lord John Sinclair, the coroner, may be given before returning to his direct line. The Easter Issue Rolls of 30th June, 28 Henry VI, 1450, have this historic entry:
‘To Alexander Eden, sheriff of Kent, and to divers others of the same county: In money paid to them, viz., by the hands of Gervase Clifton, £100, and by the hands of John Seyncler, £166, 13s. 4d., in part payment of 1000 marks which the lord the king commanded to be paid to the same Alexander and others, as well for taking John Cade, an Irishman, calling himself John Mortimer, a great rebel, enemy, and traitor to the king, as also for conducting the person of the said John Cade to the council of the said lord the king, after proclamation thereof made in the city of London, to be had of his gift for their pains in the matter aforesaid: By writ of privy seal among the mandates of this term, £266, 13s. 4d.’.
Shakespeare, and the historians more than he, could correct themselves from this best of authority. The drama Second Part of King Henry VI is more dramatic than historical, and Jack Cade's slaughter by a giant Alexander Eden at Hothfield or elsewhere in Kent or Sussex, is popular legend seemingly for the miserable facts, as they were, of the cold hand of law condemning, hanging, and quartering him whose father was a Mortimer, mother a Plantagenet, and wife descended of the Lacies. Lord Say, because he could speak French and Latin, “and corrupted the youth of the realm by erecting a grammar school”, lost his head by command of this John Mend-All, the kind of sovereign who deserves to die high. Such pleading as Say, according to the drama, made, was pearls before the very king of the swine. It was by his mother that this Say was of the chivalrous family so closely knit with the early Sinclairs, he being the first of the Fynes.
‘Kent, in the Commentaries Caesar writ,
Is termed the civilest place of all this isle:
Sweet is the country, because full of riches;
The people liberal, valiant, active, wealthy:
Which makes me hope you are not void of pity.’
But this is not the only appearance of John Sinclair in the records of that alarming rebellion and its sequels. In the acts of the privy council there is a letter from King Henry VI himself, dated 8th June, 1456, to “John Saintcleir, squier” and other knights and esquires of Kent, calling upon them to meet at Maidstone, and see that the king's justice be done in reckonings with rebels. This is twenty-one years after the Kent and Sussex Aldham-St.Clairs had failed in the male line in the person of the wealthy Thomas Sinclair, father of the three coheiresses, who must have seen much of the Cade rising, recruited from their own wide estates to large extent. With this John in official activity and himself a squire, if there were no more of their lineage in the county of landed rank, the name was not friendless in the consanguinity sense.
In the report, or rather the digest, of the recently created historical MSS. commission, whose wise purpose is to save as much out of private records as possible, there is quite another aspect than that of loyalty in respect to another John Sencler, lord of Faversham, Kent. He is an armiger in the pardon he gets from Henry VI at the special instance, or rather by the absolute power, of the queen, for taking part with this same “John Mortimer” in the rebellion. The list of pardoned begins with this lord of Faversham, then one called “gentleman”, then a dozen to a score of Faversham glovers, brewers, fellmongers, butchers, wool staplers, suggestive of the combination of trades attributed to Shakespeare's father and himself a century later at Stratford-on-Avon. The leadership of John of itself implies his influential position, and it is not without valuable suggestion, as to the reality of good grounds for the popular discontent, when such a name is found in the ranks of the Kentish rising. Jack Cade was perhaps more and less than a Captain Mend-All of the Wat Tyler order.
England had been disgraced by the loss of Normandy, and our French-blooded queen, Margaret, with an imbecile husband, Henry VI, and favourites of detestable and treasonable characters, had outraged not only the popular but the baronial feeling. Only thus can the Kentish enthusiasm for an Irish gallowglass, expressed by thousands of followers, be explained. He was the sham Mortimer to the real one in the background. The duke of York had rights, by a female Plantagenet, towards the crown; and it is not extraordinary that, as his ancestor Hugh Mortimer gallantly fought side by side with St.Cler in the battle of Hastings, Wace witness, this John Sinclair was of his party. The duke's sons, Edward and Richard Mortimer, the Edward IV and Richard III of England, had for first stepping-stone towards their elevation, Cade's movement.
Five years after, all the kingdom was white or red rose, in fiercest civil warfare. Says Rapin:
‘Though Cade's enterprise had miscarried, the duke of York had reaped the benefit he proposed. The great number of people that embarked in it, discovered how much the nation was displeased with the queen and the ministry, and that the memory of the rights of the house of March was not entirely abolished’. The house of March, so called because of its Welsh border standing, being Mortimers, and only noblemen, had no lineage claim whatever, but affinities unfortunately played great part in English regal politics. Adventurer and cruelty are perforce connected, and the Mortimers of historic pages prove so, though there have been far vaguer pretensions than theirs to highest place. The Nevilles, heirs of the Montacutes and Beauchamps, and of royalty affinities also, the earl of Salisbury and the earl of Warwick, king-maker, their great representatives, had their influence most in Kent, and they were favourers of the Mortimers with effect, at the beginning of the struggle. That Jack Cade was inspired by chief men of the county is very certain, and the division of lineages to parties then is no single experience of the van-district of England's vigour.
The date of John Sinclair's pardon is four days before the capture of Jack Cade, about which another John Sinclair was much engaged, as already shown. The report itself by the royal commission is well worthy of examination for the light it throws on the history of the period. Such an inscription as the following would imply that Kentishmen of the name, in lower ranks, then prevailed:
‘Here lies Roger Sentcler, formerly serving the abbot and convent of Lesnes, who died on the first day of the month of January, 1425. Whose soul … ’. This is preserved in Weever's Funeral Monuments, as well as in the Vet. MSS. in bib. Cot., from which he took it. Lesnes Abbey was founded by Sir Eichard Lucie, chief justice of England, the fellow-excommunicate of Hugo St.Clare, pincerna; and he himself became its abbot, Roger must have had dignified service under the later abbot of his time before they would give him funeral immortality in the sacred building. Many individuals could yet be discovered of such kind. In Henry VII's reign the Issue Rolls of the Privy Purse tells of a court doctor, Rauffe Sentcler, and gives the interesting information that the royal medical fee was then, at the palace of Sheen, the sum of £1.
Hasted in his History of Kent, under “Woodland”, has most difficult account of no fewer than four of the surname holding it, the last of whom was Thomas, who held it 12 Edward IV (1473) “whose descendants passed it away at the end of Henry VII's reign”. His information cannot refer to the Aldham St.Cleres, though the names are similar, and must mean these Medway and Thames people. In 9 Edward III (1336) John, son to John St.Clere, enjoyed Woodland, he says, and the former John of these two was Duminus John, the coroner, as far as can be made out. What adds strength to this is that Hasted says that Hamon Crevequer of the “great family”, held it before the St.Cleres, and that the second John was succeeded by a Thomas, who could quite well be the Thomas of Frothewick and Tilbury already noted. Thomas died 4 Henry IV (1403). The wife of a Philip Sinclair, Margaret, also is recorded as its holder 1 Henry VI (1423). Thomas of 1473 referred to by Hasted, separates them entirely from the Aldham St.Cleres of Kent and Sussex, because the last Thomas of them died in 1435, the end of male descent to his branch. It is one of the Aeslinghams who is meant by an entry in the Calendar of Inquisitions after Death, and seemingly he of 1473 -
‘Thomas Sinclair, armsbearing, 15 Edward IV (1476): He held no lands nor tenements in the county of Essex:’ which record of 1476 was written in transactions about his will. This appears to give the history of the separation of the Aeslinghams into the family at Tilbury and Frothewick, Essex, and into this Kent family whose remains are as interesting as they are difficult to reduce to clear coherence.
The coroner's successors must be closed, on the knowledge yet attained, with the history of some Anthony Sinclairs of curious character. In the national record office, Fetter Lane, details are to be got of a Sir Anthony of Kent as late as the time of Charles II. In 1666, the year of the great fire, he, poor as Job, petitioned the king for some consideration on the extraordinary grounds, which do not seem questioned by the ungrateful or impecunious gay monarch, that he had lost £2500 a year, which was an immense income at that time, and £5000 in goods, by raising troops for the royal service in Kent; that he had three brothers who were slain in the king's battles; that he himself had been severely wounded; and, lastly, that arrears were due from the exchequer both to his father and grandfather. Such men as these did not deserve to have their representative beggared, and then for ever neglected. He is certainly the last landed Kentish Sinclair, but his descendants may now be numerous men of the people, if right inquiry were made, “in the civilest place of all this isle”. Such a tale as this would make the hackneyed catch once again respectable. Sic transit gloria mundi.
What aids to corroborate it effectually and finally, is an entry in the Pell Records. It is a payment by the privy seal, 31st Dec 1606, to John Williams, London goldsmith, for “part of a gold chain” which James I gave to Sir Anthony “Sencleer”, as it is spelt in the record. This was soon after the gunpowder plot, when the popular enthusiasm for the king's safety opened for him the purse of the house of commons, and he was unusually liberal of presents accordingly. The union of Scotland with England was also on the carpet, and gifts were more than somewhat free. The spirit of the time is shown by the Spanish ambassador giving a chain to one who brought him the news that the report was false that James had been killed by a poisoned knife. At this period also, the king of Denmark, the brother-in-law of James, came to visit his sister the queen, and for him fabulous feasts, masquerades, and generosities were provided. The Danish ambassador was Sir Andrew Sinclere, knt., of Scandinavian birth, and he was a special favourite of the English court on that occasion. The Pell Records have,
‘By order dated last of April 1614: To George Herriott, jeweller to the queen, the sum of £320, for one diamond bought of him, and by his majesty bestowed upon his trusty and well-beloved servant, Sir Andrew Sinclere, knight, without account, imprest, or other charge to be set upon him for the same or any part thereof’. This is the Edinburgh Heriot of whom Sir Walter Scott has made so much. Sir Lewes Lewknor has various attentions to pay of the hospitable kind, by virtue of his court office, to Sir Andrew, the Lewknors of Sussex being already familiar names. But he who got the piece of a chain is the Sinclair or Sencleer of present interest. His Danish kinsman no doubt enjoyed his English hospitality and friendliness. Sir Anthony Sencleer of this reign was the father or grand-father of the Sir Anthony Sinclair of Charles II's time, and that the exchequer owed the elder Anthony money is somewhat suggested by such gift-giving. James was curiously easy in getting into money ditficulties, and amusingly cunning in staving off results from day to day, if his describers are to be believed.
With the later Sir Anthony this branch must be left entirely. He seems to have been quenched out of the noblest chivalry of England, by the chronic generosity and loyalty of his line to the wretched Stuarts or “stewards”, who never really rose above the official temper of the distinguished Scottish office from which they took their names, for all their unfortunate and at last tragic coquetting with autocracy. The genuine monarchical spirit of the Norman dynasty they never could, by reason of the fate and stamp of nature, arrive at by any of their miserable assertions. If a Sir Anthony, of stranger's blood even, had had such a bill of deeds to back him as this one had for Charles II, and came with it to a duke of Normandy of the descent of Rogenwald the Rich, the father of Rollo the Rich, and progenitor of the truest men of Europe, the Sinclairs among them, or to a William I or II, or a Henry Beauclerc, he would have not been sent empty-handed away, but kept as a comes worthy of their best lands and titles. Gold chains and similar miseries were the measures of the Stuarts for such supporters. In some books Sir Anthony is a St.Leger.
But let swift return be made to the Essex Sinclairs, who are the last of the Aeslinghams to be described, the descendants of Hugo St.Clare of Becket fame or notoriety. Mention must be made of a Robert de St.Clair who had properties near Dover, and especially the manor of Hastingleigh, in the neighbourhood of Ashford. Of him next to nothing, however, is known. There is record of his marriage to a Joan in 1331, and also that he had four sons, Robert, William, Richard, and Thomas.
Jeake's Charters, page 49, shows that a Guy St.Clere held the then perhaps most coveted position in the kingdom, constable of Dover Castle, and warden of the Cinque Points. He held them separately and together; and if he was one of these Hastingleighs, they also are not without distinction down to this day. These offices were objects of ambition to even king's sons, Henry VII's second boy, Henry, afterwards Henry VIII, being appointed to them in 1493.